J.D.M. Stewart is the author of Being Prime Minister and a history teacher at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.
Prime Minister Lester Pearson once wrote that “Prime ministers require the hide of a rhinoceros, the morals of St. Francis, the patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the leadership of Napoleon, the magnetism of a Beatle and the subtlety of Machiavelli.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will need all of these qualities, too, as he, his cabinet and the entire country take on a crisis as severe as any faced by his predecessors: a pernicious coronavirus. But as those previous PMs knew well, these moments also serve as a test of leadership: How a prime minister handles a crisis can define their legacy.
A look back at a few of these touchstones shows what works and what doesn’t – and how, perhaps crucially, prime ministers should watch out for their health, because crises take a toll.
Robert Borden and the Conscription Crisis of 1917
“How far [are] democratic nations willing to go in the pursuit of victory?”
Many observers have compared the current pandemic to a country at war. For Conservative prime minister Robert Borden, who led Canada during the First World War, the years between 1914 and 1918 would be so difficult it nearly cost him his life. You could pick any number of single episodes from this period – from the enormous loss of life in the battlefields of Flanders to the burning down of the Parliament buildings in 1916, or the deadly Halifax Explosion the following year. But it was the Conscription Crisis of 1917 that really took its toll on the prime minister.
Borden’s government introduced mandatory military enlistment in May, 1917, and soon after the prime minister faced death threats, necessitating a security detail outside his home and for his travels to and from Parliament. As the country grappled with an issue that divided it along linguistic lines, the 63-year-old Borden collapsed from stress in September. He was ordered by his doctor to rest in bed.
To manage the national crisis, Borden opted to form a coalition Union government with Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals, only a handful of whom joined what was called the Unionist Party. The ensuing election in December was one of the nastiest in the country’s history and Borden did all he could to ensure a Unionist victory, including allowing women to vote for the first time – but only if they had a relative serving in the military.
As Mr. Trudeau wrestles with how far he may need to curb the civil liberties of Canadians during the pandemic, the question asked about Borden by historian Tim Cook in his book Warlords has obvious resonance today: “One of the fundamental questions raised in assessing Borden’s wartime leadership pertains to how far democratic nations are willing to go in the pursuit of victory.”
Mackenzie King and the stock market crash of 1929
“I wouldn’t give them a five-cent piece.”
As we are learning from the current crisis, it’s best to act quickly and to avoid the “everything is fine” position exemplified by U.S. President Donald Trump. In his second of three go-rounds as prime minister, Mackenzie King erred on both counts.
When he was asked about the events of Oct. 29, 1929, when stock markets in New York and Toronto tanked so deeply it was named Black Tuesday, the Liberal prime minister replied that, “while no doubt a number of people have suffered owing to the sharp decline in stocks, the soundness of the Canadian securities generally is not affected. Business [had] never [been] better, nor faith in Canada’s future more justified.”
“In his entire career up to this point," noted King biographer Allan Levine, "he had never been so wrong about any other political or economic crisis.”
The prime minister did little to address the spreading economic malaise, and his biographer writes that few in the world understood the gravity of what was happening at the time. Nonetheless, King’s intemperance made matters worse when he said in the House of Commons that he would give no federal funding to any provincial government to address the problem of unemployment if they were led by Tories. “I would not give them a five-cent piece.”
Partisanship and impetuousness are not helpful in a national crisis. King lost the election to R.B. Bennett the following year.
Mackenzie King and the Conscription Crisis of 1944
“Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”
“The most critical 35 days in the political life of William Lyon Mackenzie King, and perhaps in the life of the Canadian nation, began on Oct. 19, 1944, and ended on Nov. 22.”
So begins a 1952 story in Maclean’s magazine by the legendary journalist Bruce Hutchison about the second Conscription Crisis in Canada. King, who returned to power with a majority government in the 1935 election, had been a member of Parliament during the previous episode in 1917 and knew conscription was to be avoided at all costs because of the divisions it caused. He promised not to impose it at the outset of the Second World War in 1939.
A 1942 plebiscite asked Canadians to release the King government from that promise, which it did, while exposing the usual rift between Quebec – the province voted 73 per cent against doing so – and the rest of Canada, which was 80 per cent in favour. The prime minister had bought himself some time, epitomized by his now famous line about having “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”
After manpower shortages struck Canada’s army in 1944, the crisis turned white hot. King’s cabinet tore itself apart, with English-Canadian ministers clamouring for soldiers to be sent overseas right away. But the prime minister, still wary of mandatory enlistment for national-unity reasons, engineered the resignation of pro-conscription defence minister James Ralston, replacing him with Andrew McNaughton, who promised he could get the needed volunteers.
When that effort failed, King had no other option but to send over the soldiers mobilized for home defence. But through prevarication, cunning and resolve, the prime minister kept his cabinet and the country together in what the Maclean’s piece called “the most extraordinary if not the most important cabinet decision since Confederation.”
John Diefenbaker and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
“A pathological hatred of taking a hard decision.”
It is clear that a steady hand, along with comfort and certainty with decision-making, are excellent tools to have in your crisis-management toolbox. Unfortunately, Conservative prime minister John Diefenbaker had none of these.
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 put the world on edge due to a standoff between the United States and Soviet Union over the construction of military bases in Cuba. Canada was intimately involved because of its integrated defence systems, a result of the agreement of the North American Aerospace Defence Command.
When defence minister Douglas Harkness was informed that the U.S. had escalated to DEFCON 3 levels of force readiness, he wanted to do the same for Canada and decided to run it past Mr. Diefenbaker. He declined the request until a cabinet meeting could be called the next day. With virtually all cabinet colleagues onside with Mr. Harkness, the chief still refused to give the go-ahead the next day – “chiefly, I think,” wrote Mr. Harkness, “because of a pathological hatred of taking a hard decision.” Mr. Harkness went behind the prime minister’s back and put the forces on alert anyway.
When the U.S. went even higher to DEFCON 2, Mr. Harkness again approached Mr. Diefenbaker; this time, the prime minister just waved his hand in frustration and said, “All right, go ahead.” Not exactly leadership.
Fellow cabinet minister Gordon Churchill told Mr. Harkness that “the country just could not afford to have the Prime Minister in that position at a time of crisis – he refused to act when action was absolutely necessary.”
Pierre Trudeau and the October Crisis of 1970
“Just watch me.”
In October, 1970, the Front de libération du Québec kidnapped British diplomat James Cross. Five days later, the FLQ grabbed Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte, and Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau was embroiled in one of most difficult crises ever to face a Canadian leader.
Mr. Trudeau ordered the Canadian military to defend public officials in Ottawa and the prime minister’s trip to the House of Commons on Oct. 13 led to the famous interview in which he uttered the words, “Just watch me,” after being asked how far he was willing to go to deal with the crisis.
Faced with grave uncertainties and unrest in Montreal, Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet intensely debated invoking the War Measures Act, which would suspend civil liberties. A day after declaring the act, Mr. Laporte was murdered by the FLQ and left abandoned in the trunk of a car. (Margaret Sinclair, who would later become Mr. Trudeau’s wife, said she “watched him grow old before my eyes” when he got the news.)
The War Measures Act and Mr. Laporte’s murder changed the dynamic of the October Crisis. Mr. Cross was subsequently released as part of a deal that sent the kidnappers to Cuba. But the crisis remains an exemplar of leadership and it was a touchstone of Mr. Trudeau’s legacy. Echoing King in his handling of the Conscription Crisis, Mr. Trudeau showed strength and resolve throughout the October Crisis. As Eric Kierans, a member of Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet, recalled, “Trudeau, as usual, was calm, fully in control. Very, very, impressive.”
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